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the northman
via Universal

Review: ‘The Northman’ proves worthy of Valhalla in blistering fashion

Robert Eggers' 'The Northman' is a brutal Viking revenge story like no other that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
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There was some concern when director Robert Eggers seemed to allude to his third feature (and first with a studio-sized budget) being subjected to interference in post-production, although he did stress shortly afterwards that the version of The Northman to hit theaters would be the unadulterated product of his own distinctive vision.

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As it turns out, the filmmaker wasn’t lying, because the brutally intense, bludgeoning, and altogether blistering Viking epic is unquestionably the work of an auteur who knew exactly what they wanted to bring to the screen, and delivered it in the most uncompromising fashion possible.

Much like The Witch and The Lighthouse, The Northman touches base with several of Eggers’ favored themes, including the reframing of familiar mythology or folklore in a different light, characters haunted by uncertainty and self-doubt, and a protagonist conflicted by their own motivations, except this time it’s painted on a canvas almost six times as expensive as his previous two movies combined, and it shows.

The Northman isn’t particularly concerned or encumbered by narrative, though, and you’ll even be familiar with the broadest strokes of the story given that Eggers and co-writer Sjón adapted it from the same Danish legend that would go on to inspire William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the “why” and “how” is eminently more important to the function and enjoyment of the film than the “what” and “when”.

Not wasting any time, we dive right into a first act that moves along at a clip, and instantly immerses us in the weirdness that becomes a huge part of The Northman‘s unique charm. Ethan Hawke’s King Aurvandil returns from war, and decides that now is the time for young Prince Amleth to begin the journey from boy to man.

To do this, the monarchic father and son literally go feral, transforming themselves into the embodiment of beasts to break themselves down to their most primal forms, with Willem Dafoe’s Heimir the Fool acting as master of ceremonies. It’s jarring, slightly uncomfortable, and very strange indeed, but as The Northman progresses, it ends up informing the entirety of Amleth’s story right until the final frame.

As soon as Aurvandil and his heir emerge in the open, Claes Bang’s Fjölnir seizes his moment to strike, staging a bloody coup by lopping off his brother’s head and claiming the kingdom for himself. Fortunately, Amleth manages to escape to safety and swears an oath of revenge, which turns out to be quite the understatement.

Alexander Skarsgård recently lamented that he didn’t want to be typecast as a sex symbol at the beginning of his career, but he’s now a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor, so that ship has long since sailed. However, he’s never played a role anything close to the adult Amleth before.

Approaching his performance in a manner that deftly straddles the line between man and beast, Skarsgård cuts an imposing figure that lurches forward with his shoulders hunched, which is designed to do much more than show off those awe-inspiring trapezius muscles. Amleth comes across as a man possessed in more ways than one, constantly fighting to subdue his animalistic nature and unbridled ferocity, which isn’t 100% successful by any stretch given the bodies strewn in his wake.

It’s not just the Skarsgård show, it should be said, with the cast uniformly excellent across the board. Hawke brings gravely gravitas to the table that would make anyone want to seek retribution in his name, while Dafoe goes full Dafoe as the bug-eyed, scene-stealing Heimir. That’s really the only “big” performance among the ensemble (although Björk’s bewitchingly captivating seer may fall into that category for some), but every primary character has many dimensions.

Bang’s Fjölnir may be the erstwhile villain of the piece, but he’s not a boo-hiss baddie. Sure, he usurped his brother’s throne after decapitating him and stole his wife, but it didn’t work out all that well in the long run, and that’s before Amleth reappears on the scene.

He’s trying to do his best and what he believes is right with the hand he dealt himself, matters that aren’t helped by an utterly chaotic (in the most complimentary way) Nicole Kidman, who deliberately has you questioning her intentions, motivations, and truths every time she opens her mouth as Queen Gudrún.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s sorceress Olga of the Birch Forest is the relatively calm counterpoint that brings balance to the furious, conflicted, and eventually skeptical Amleth, even if she points out that while he can break bodies with ease, only she is capable of breaking minds. There’s an air of “seen it all before destiny” when it comes to their dynamic and ultimate destination, but the pair are far too good to let it come anywhere close to approaching formula.

While some of the marketing may have been somewhat misleading in painting The Northman as a battle-heavy actioner, the set pieces are regularly jaw-dropping in their own right. Eggers favors long takes that display incredible technical precision and shot composition, while cinematographer Jarin Blaschke presents crisp, clean, visuals that ensure not a single frame is wasted, and that’s without even mentioning the startling color schemes, sweeping landscape shots, and expertly-paced choreography (complemented by an ever-evolving score from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough) that gives each distinct shift of location or new blood-soaked scrap an entirely different dimension.

Amleth’s fate is literally signposted word-for-word in the opening voiceover, but Eggers ensures that you’ll be fully invested in the journey, despite being spoon fed the steps right from the off. The Northman might be a fairly standard A-to-B saga of revenge on paper, but every corner of all 137 minutes boasts style, action, blood, love, lust, death, expressiveness, insularity, and spectacle to spare, so you’ll never be left wanting from scene to scene.

To be fair, it might not be for everyone, but you’ll know within the first five minutes or so whether you’re willing to throw your lot in with an occasionally hallucinogenic, often gruesomely violent, and intensely raw slice of historical mysticism that goes all-in to the extent that the climactic showdown revolves around two naked buff dudes duking it out with swords on top of a mountain in the midst of a volcanic eruption.

The Northman is wild, startling, fascinating, and phenomenal at once, but hopefully it’s just the beginning of Eggers regularly being handed sizeable budgets to deliver more sprawling near-masterpieces.

Robert Eggers' blistering epic 'The Northman' is a raw, bloody, and brutal Viking revenge saga that splatters blood and brilliance on every inch of its canvas.

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Scott Campbell
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